Wednesday 20 June 2018

Film Review: Hamburger Hill, 1987

May '69, the 101st Airborne, or 'Screaming Eagles', are ordered to take Hill 937, a heavily fortified North Vietnamese strongpoint. Repeated assaults ensue and, due to heavy U.S. losses, the battle acquires the nickname Hamburger Hill.

This portrayal of those events is, like most American 'Nam movies, told pretty much entirely from the U.S. perspective. The disparity of means at the disposal of the engaging forces is depicted accurately, in that the Americans, if they don't always outnumber, certainly outgun their adversaries, calling in artillery and air support their foe simply don't have.

Dylan McDermott as Sgt. Frantz.

In some ways this is just another typical 'Nam movie; just like the Asian cookery of the region, certain key ingredients are esssential: most of the actors are perhaps rather too good looking to be entirely plausible, there's the ubiquitous war-weary male combat banter, and the movie as a whole straddles that paradoxical divide between a homage to 'our brave boys', and a condemnation of the wasteful brutality of war.

The core of the film shares a common theme with many contemporary war films, and real combat (from what I've read), in which soldiers ultimately fight for themselves and the men close to them - stay alive, stay together - rather than for any ideology. The themes of bonding and loss under extreme conditions are certainly major components of this film.

Courtney Vance as 'Doc' Johnson (right). [1]

Other prominent and interesting sub-themes are: ongoing issues of racial tension, a growing awareness of the anti-war movement 'back home', and doubt in the soldiers minds over why the battle/war is being fought at all. Where Hamburger Hill differentiates itself most noticeably from some other similar genre pieces is in its tight focus on a small ensemble of soldiers - 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon - fighting one particular ten day battle.

Ultimately it's the characters and the actors portraying them that make or break a film like this. The film's central character, Sgt. Frantz (Dylan McDermott), is good in this respect, as is Sgt. Worcester (Steve Weber), his war-weary immediate superior. The cast of largely less than familiar faces acquit themselves well; underneath all the macho army banter lurk real human beings. Courtney Vance deserves special mention for his charismatic portrayal of medic 'Doc' Johnson. These guys are believable enough that one really does feel engaged in their story.

The ensemble cast.

A second viewing confirms that it's this ensemble quality, and the above average quality of the dialogue, that lift this film above the purely workmanlike. Yes, a lot of the macho banter sounds clich├ęd - and in many ways it is - but that's a part of the reality of the tribalism that develops amongst fiercely competing all male groups. But there's also some subtler stuff in there to. The other thing that struck me powerfully on second viewing is the insane sacrifices demanded of the 'grunts'.

An impressive CGI-free production, in which terrain and weather play notable roles, Hamburger Hill sits between the old school epics, in which the violence of war is suggested more than depicted, and the more recent trend towards splat-fests. Whilst there's a lot of mud and blood, it's only occasionally punctuated with a smattering - or should that be a splattering? - of more shockingly visceral moments.

Enjoying behind the lines comforts.

Less self-consciously aestheticised or (pseudo?) philosophical than The Thin Red Line, and completely eschewing the over-hyped psychedelic rock-opera stylings of Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill is correspondingly that much more realistic. Not an instant classic, but a powerful grower, and more than just good solid fare for the war movie junkie.


[1] I sometimes wondered if the racial elements might have contributed to some of the ideas in Tropic Thunder.

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